Social justice as a religion

Too many Catholics are unable to distinguish the Kingdom of God from global technocracy.

(Image: us.fotolia.com)

Last month I noted that modern people are impressed by the power of technology, industrial organization, and the managerial state. The resulting emphasis on man’s power over things has led people to view the social order as something they can change as they wish. If we can put a man on the moon, people ask, why can’t we abolish war, poverty, and inequality?

The line of thought raises difficult questions. If we reconstruct society, who is the “we”? “Society” means all of us, who are mostly doing what we think good already. So the project in its usual form calls for a small independent group to mold the larger society in accordance with its own wishes, disregarding what people in general want.

That sounds like dictatorship by a revolutionary vanguard. Wouldn’t it be better to persuade people to change their habits and goals—if that seems beneficial to them—so that changes come more organically? Also, does experience really bear out the idea that something as complex as the network of human social relations can be remade any way someone wants? The effort seems especially likely to fail if it is based on misconceptions and involves force and fraud, as is very often the case.

Viewing the social order as an intentional construction has consequences. One is the idea of society as an actor that defines arbitrarily who people are. Whatever someone’s situation, it’s something we did to him. So people who own sleazy nightclubs aren’t marginal characters any more, they are “marginalized.” Women aren’t physically attractive to men, they are “sexualized.” And juvenile delinquents aren’t delinquent, they are “at risk,” “justice-involved,” or even “criminalized”—that is, defined arbitrarily as criminals.

That way of speaking sometimes raises issues worth considering. If a great many people are breaking the law, we should ask how that comes about, and whether something can be done about it. And constantly emphasizing sex in entertainment and advertising distorts a side of life that requires restraint and tact, so why not try to find a response?

The sensible response to such situations, though, is not to claim that crime and sex are arbitrary social constructions. It does no good to say, for example, that sexual desire is something you can browbeat out of young men, or that concern about provocative dress is an example of the sexualization of women’s bodies that leads to rape culture. Such claims deny human life as it is, and make it impossible to deal with sensibly.

Another effect of the belief that people have an open-ended ability to remake society to serve their purposes is that the satisfaction of individual preferences becomes the highest good. We are social beings, and our ideas of good and evil are closely tied to our social setting. That’s one reason Catholics need to be part of the Church. But if our choices create the social world, why wouldn’t they create the standards for judgment within that world?

That line of thought leads to subjectivism and the abolition of personal responsibility. Things and their value become what people decide they are, and each of us acquires, as the Supreme Court says, “the right to define [his] own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life.” Since our choice gives these definitions their value, and each of us equally chooses, each definition has equal standing. Each of us thus defines his own truth and his own right and wrong—which very likely justify everything he does.

Morality thus comes to accept that each of us lives in his own world, with each world having equal status. The one remaining personal sin is failure to support that principle. The result is that individual morality disappears in favor of “social justice” as now understood—the aspiration for a social order that delivers equal satisfaction to everyone regardless of his situation and scheme of values.

The consequences are all around us. Social justice warriors grow increasingly extreme. If you say a man who says he’s a woman is still a man, people are outraged and try to destroy your life. You want to make someone disappear, they believe, since you deny the reality of what he defines himself to be. So why shouldn’t you be made to disappear?

Not surprisingly, that outlook affects religion. It doesn’t abolish it, since people always have some understanding of what’s real and important that guides them in what they do. Instead, it leads them into a new sort of religion, one in which subjectivism becomes the new absolute.

In that updated religion, contemplation of ultimate reality disappears, because each makes up his own. Speaking about truth becomes oppressive, because it’s considered a matter of forcing one’s ideas on others. So concern for doctrine vanishes. Religion becomes a matter of morality and psychological self-care, with pastoral support from the clergy. The one remaining doctrine is universal acceptance—encounter, accompaniment, inclusion, support, and so on. And proselytism becomes blasphemy, since it’s a rejection of what the faith of the other makes sacred.

Under such circumstances, people don’t talk about dogma. Instead, they talk about Catholic traditions and practices and what they mean for them and how they can be tailored to individual and social needs. And the sacraments are reduced to personal spiritual practices, like yoga classes at the local health club. Some people are into them, but they don’t matter in the serious practical way bicycle shops and liquor stores do—not to mention Tinder, Bumble, and Grindr, which (Dr. Fauci seems to believe) have the dignity that comes from their centrality to the fundamental concerns of life.

So why keep the sacraments if they might cause problems? Our higher pastors, who don’t like to make problems or annoy people, usually don’t want to dispute the point. Making a fuss about confession and last rites for the dying in the midst of an epidemic would violate the conventions of secularism, and that would make Catholic leaders look bad in the eyes of people they want to impress.

Instead, image-conscious higher-ups emphasize the need to build what counts as social justice. So leading churchmen insist strenuously on causes that governing elites care about, like global governance, social management, and the free movement of labor. If the world those causes point to would be hard to distinguish from control of all social life by those same elites, so much the better. Justice, after all, requires guardians, and what better guardians than Bill Gates, the New York Times, the Democratic Party, and the UN?

Catholics who reject those positions are considered hypocrites. After all, didn’t Jesus say “judge not”? Wasn’t he a refugee? Didn’t he emphasize concern for the poor, and outreach to prostitutes and crooked businessmen? And today doesn’t all that mean getting rid of boundaries and traditional social and moral distinctions, replacing them (since some way of organizing society has to replace them) with a global regime that manages everything and looks after all human concerns?

The alternative to such a regime, we are told, is exclusion, injustice, poverty, and violence. That is the institutional consensus, so respectable people—almost by definition—agree it must be right.

But should Catholics be respectable?

The past sixty years have seen great efforts to present the Faith in ways consistent with present-day thought. But the ways of thinking that are taken seriously today are defective, because they sacrifice adequacy to effectiveness. They identify knowledge with modern natural science, and rationality with technology. That makes it impossible to discuss life as it is. All we can discuss is what people want and how to get it, along with abstract standards like efficiency and equality. The result for many Catholics is an inability to distinguish the Kingdom of God from global technocracy.

But that’s no good. The Catholic faith and our own experience tells us that the world is more complex—at once grander and more miserable—than such conceptions allow. We don’t make ourselves, and can’t redesign ourselves, because we are neither gods nor industrial products. Politics and reform may be important, but they cannot transform our basic situation. For that something much greater is needed. And that is the point of the Catholic faith.


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About James Kalb 105 Articles
James Kalb is a lawyer, independent scholar, and Catholic convert who lives in Brooklyn, New York. He is the author of The Tyranny of Liberalism(ISI Books, 2008) and, most recently, Against Inclusiveness: How the Diversity Regime is Flattening America and the West and What to Do About It (Angelico Press, 2013).

22 Comments

  1. Part of the problem is that there is also massive confusion among Catholics between the “Kingdom of God on Earth” advocated by adherents of the “new things” of socialism, modernism, and the New Age, and the “Reign of Christ the King,” which as Our Lord clearly stated is not of this world. Consequently, as Fulton Sheen pointed out, all efforts to create a heaven on earth inevitably result in a hell.

      • But weren’t we taught to pray, “Thy Will be done on earth as it is in heaven”? If we leave aside our own freewill and by the inspiration of the Holy Spirit do God’s Will instead of our own then wouldn’t we bring heaven down to earth? Maybe not for all people but for those whose names are written in the Lamb’s Book of Life? For each of us is a “Babylon” or a “New Jerusalem”.

  2. Oh, such a brilliant take on the mess in which society, the American Catholic Church, and we Catholics find ourselves.

    If our leaders and we cannot think clearly, we cannot make good decisions. We are sitting ducks for the same brilliant and enlightened social engineers who took the bright promise of the 20th century and rendered it a death-stenchy charnel house.

    I detect a book idea in this article. And, once Mr. Kalb writes it, may I suggest that it be required reading for every Catholic bishop, every Catholic pastor, every Catholic religion teacher, every Catholic parent — and, yes, every Catholic pope — until the failed leftist experiment has run its diabolical course.

    (With more than 100 million people murdered by leftist regimes over the past century, what need of further testing could there possibly be?)

    Stupidity is a very expensive luxury.

  3. Mr. Kalb writes about the perception that speaking of ideas is not in vogue because people force them on others.

    In a democracy, it’s not the people who force the ideas – Rather, it’s the ideas that have force.

    • I wonder how you can say that after the forced shut down of our economy with Covid being the putative reason. Governors are defying their own legislatures to maintain their power, and the voice of their people to open economically. They maintain the shutdown by using politicized courts and arresting 77 year old barbers for daring to earn a living.That is indeed force but not the force of an idea. Now we see riots in the streets and the burning of dozens of cities and the murder of innocent bystanders, small shop owners, and police trying to do their job. All while some claim that the killing of one man by a rouge cop is a justification.His death is a tragedy but not legitimate justification.In support of this idea , some cops are “taking a knee” with those burning down the city, while the lives of innocent people who are neither racists nor had anything to do with the mans killing, are destroyed. Mob rule is NOT an idea.

      • lg,
        Yes, it’s true that lies, bad ideas, fallacies, and brute strength can mitigate the force of a true idea in a democracy and a tyranny.

        The implication in my original post is this — The truer the idea: the more force that is necessary to counter it.

  4. I have always found the use of the term “social justice” as an invitation to make justice conform to any sense of justice you wish it to be. Placing the adjective before the noun dilutes the word to a subjective understanding (misunderstanding?)of what justice is and is not.

  5. Am reading “Mere Christianity” for the second time and this essay resonates with me as much of Part 3 of MC discusses similar points.

  6. To me subjectivity and everyone having their own reality is particularly devastating to the sciences. If everyone has their own reality, then they can also have their own experimental data, made up out of whole cloth, if that is the view of particular researchers.

  7. A Karen was scolding people on Facebook recently, for using the word “looting.” It’s raaaacist!

    The best alternate expression I saw suggested was: “undocumented shopping.”

    • Arthur,
      I’ve long suspected that many liberals are, in fact, closet racists. For the person who made the looting comment, I suspect the following:

      If they’re white, they have an improper view of black people because they associate “looting” with being black. Such a person needs to correct this image within themselves rather than projecting it onto others.

      If they’re black, they’ve a poor self-image. They need to ask themselves why and then try to correct it.

  8. Catholic Social Teaching is intended to serve God by serving our fellow man, in accordance with the teaching of Our Lord that ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brethren, you did it to me.’ (Matthew 25:40, RSVCE).

    Social Justice Warriors, on the other hand, only intend to serve themselves by engaging in activism (not always helping society and very often hurting it) to display a false sense of moral superiority over their fellow man, in what is often called “virtue signalling”.

  9. For us, it’s called modernism. Rooted in the man-centered Enlightenment. Spiced up with Masonic tenets and the French Revolution. The Church used to fight against it but then capitulated out of perhaps naïveté or, perhaps intentional subversion, or perhaps a mix, or whatever.

    It’s been around for a while now and when Vatican II was summoned for this big “modernization” and “reconciliation” with the world, the world screwed us over and now the Church is more mundane than ever. Pope Francis is the conclusion of all of this Equation as far as popes go, and (the completely non-practicing, genuinely pious remnant, and trads aside) the SJW Catholics with more of a sentimental sense of the supernatural are the conclusion of the equation for lay people.

  10. Was the Council about “reconciliation” with modernity, or something else more grounded?

    In opening the Council, at least, Pope John XXIII said it this way: “What above all concerns the Ecumenical Council is this: that the sacred deposit of Christian doctrine be safeguarded and taught more effectively (…) Therefore, the principle purpose of this Council is not the discussion of this or that doctrinal theme . . . a Council is not required for that . . . (but) this certain and immutable doctrine, which is to be faithfully respected, needs to be explored and presented in a way which responds to the needs of our time.”

    And this Council, we recall, was historically a continuation of the First Vatican Council which was only “suspended” (not adjourned) in August 1870—with its work only half done but now under military assault by the fledgling Italian nation-state.

    Without our admittedly very lurching (and even hijacked) history of Vatican I/II, one can also wonder, at least a a little, what the Church would look like today if it still identified council-wise with only the 16th-century, pre-modern Council of Trent with its focus mostly on local (pre-global and pre-World Wars, etc.) crises such as an Augustinian monk with a German printing press, and an upstart Calvinist theocracy in Geneva.

  11. All investments have outcomes, the Am Church’s heavy investment in social justice marketed and ideologized for Catholicism by Saul Alinsky w help from Cardinal Bernadin owns a share in the outcome now playing out in the blooded tear gassed streets of NYC, LA, and so on. These are Kalb’s [not by intent] Social justice warriors who grow increasingly extreme. If you say a man who says he’s a woman is still a man, people are outraged and try to destroy your life. There is no rational dialogue with them since Right Reason is irrelevant. Only mindless [meaning death of one’s intellect] vicious demand for unprincipled Liberty to extract by violence from responsible working people with families and dreams what they demand is owed. The morally sane must nonetheless continue to appeal with reason in hope the grace of God will change hearts. Prayer and sacrifice is our weapon. Realistically, force must be used to protect our citizens, not the kowtowing by police kneeling on bent knee to the anarchists. Apparently we are in a fight to save our Nation. Only God can help us if they and their political allies succeed.

  12. “So the project in its usual form calls for a small independent group to mold the larger society in accordance with its own wishes, disregarding what people in general want. That sounds like dictatorship by a revolutionary vanguard. Wouldn’t it be better to persuade people to change their habits and goals—if that seems beneficial to them—so that changes come more organically?”

    Mr. lawyer, you have just described the Legislative and Judicial Branches of the government, along with the Executive branch of law enforcement.

    • That’s the theory – deliberative government with the participation of an informed people. And that’s the form of pretty much all current governments. The question of course is how much the substance matches the form.

  13. Recovery of a real sense of the otherness and divine transcendence of God as revealed in the humanity of Christ and his love of others as revealed in the Gospels is a sine qua non if “social justice” is to have a religious significance and subjectivist relativism is to be overcome.

  14. ” If we can put a man on the moon, people ask, why can’t we abolish war, poverty, and inequality?”

    It’s becoming clearer and clearer that we did not put a man on the moon anymore than we abolished those pandemics. At least my idea is that was the distraction and cover that made people look the other way while the same persons running the show ramped up the baby killing machine. What gods do we worship now? The moon landing was a magic act, a sleight of hand of the evil one able to confuse even the elect.

  15. James Kalb – Another clear and up to date description of what is happening all around us. Wow. Most people are almost completely unaware of all you have accurately described in this article. It’s like being in a lake of this stuff and each person is just like a water creature looking after his/her basic needs with no alternative but just to swim in this ‘lake of the lost’.

3 Trackbacks / Pingbacks

  1. Den siste, gjenværende synd – LeveVeg
  2. Social justice as a religion | Newsessentials Blog
  3. Some reading material, 05.06.20 – RC Largs and Millport

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